Striking Out review: RTÉ’s new drama all sheen and surface

Amy Huberman and the rest of the cast seem lost in the weird comedy and supposed drama of this show

Lively crew: Dublin divorce lawyers, including  Amy Huberman (right), in Striking Out

Lively crew: Dublin divorce lawyers, including Amy Huberman (right), in Striking Out

 

RTÉ’s new series, Striking Out (Sunday, RTÉ One, 9.35pm), ostensibly a drama starring Amy Huberman, really poses a more curious question: what would happen if you framed the plot and palaver of a comedy around a central character who is, to all appearances, catatonically depressed?

Our introduction to Tara Rafferty, a solicitor out on her hen night, doubles as an introduction to a sheeny idea of Dublin: the camera glides over the city at dusk finally settling on a waterside cluster of corporate buildings, glassy apartments and plentiful brunch options known as Grand Canal Dock.

In a neat manoeuvre, either superficial or deliberately satirical, the area’s familiar red lightsabre sculpture dissolves into another shot of similarly designed cocktails, their glowing straws bobbing smugly in a livid green concoction that appears fundamentally toxic.

That seems a fitting toast to this part of Dublin in 2016. (Guided by signs of resurgent affluence, and staying as far south of the river as the court scenes will allow them, it’s fair to consider this a period piece.)

With an amorous surge of carpe diem, Tara abandons her hen party without a word, only to find her chiselled fiancé Eric (Rory Keenan) at home, pinned firmly beneath another woman.

Here, director Lisa James Larsson understandably abandons the dialogue (“Are you having an affair?” “Sweetheart, this means nothing!” “Do you have any idea how stupid you sound?”) in favour of a solemn, slow-motion sequence in which a tearfully wronged woman lashes a semi-naked man with a giant inflatable penis.

Such is the tone of James Phelan’s new series, all established before the opening credits, where the heartbreaks of life resemble ludicrous clichés, while James Larsson, Huberman and the audience discover the awkward consequences of taking them utterly seriously.

A Hollywood screenwriter once shared a depressingly familiar formula on making female protagonists “adorable” for a patriarchal culture: “you have to defeat her at the beginning. Abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun.”

In Striking Out, writers Phelan and Rob Hyland achieve the first part of this dismal formula in under four minutes, which hardly counts as an advance. But, for Tara, the fun never starts.

Shoeless and unblinking, she stealthily clears out her office the next morning (Eric works in the firm, his father is a partner), running into a young offender named Ray (nicely played by newcomer Emmet Byrne) whom she is meant to defend that morning.

In court, she gets him off with a white lie – he has found a job – making him her first employee in a brand new practice operating out of a waterfront coffee shop – a move The Simpsons’ attorney-at-law Lionel Hutz might have admired. (For fear of intruding, perhaps, they soon move to a disued metal factory, a funkier environment for a pop-up law firm.)

Still, not even her first big case, an injunction to prevent “The World” newspaper from publishing a celebrity sextape, brings Tara (or Huberman) any respite from somnambulant grief – a brief recognition of the preposterousness of taking on The World, say, a rush of transferred rage, or even a dark chuckle.

Instead, we get a profoundly isolated character with apparently no female friends (her mother, played by Ingrid Craigie, sides with the cheating fiance, the abandoned hen party barely enquire after her disappearance) and only male supporters: Neil Morrissey as an older, distracted mentor type, Nick Dunning as a supportive father.

As a consequence, Huberman struggles to locate any character, shown weeping tides of mascara in the shower or staring shellshocked into the distance. It’s hard to demonstrate personality when you’re left so alone.

But who would root for her reunion with Eric, at which the show keeps tilting, whom Keenan seems to find as irredeemable as the rest of us.

In one telling moment, Eric stares long into his reflection, as though it would yield some depth, but the show, so far, is occupied purely with surfaces. Maybe that’s why, alone at the end of episode one, Tara reaches not for a memory, but a selfie; a holiday video of two magnificent-looking blondes, so self-satisfied that it could only warm the hearts of the most committed Aryans.

I preferred a fleeting, otherwise inessential moment when Tara – still fascinatingly impervious to every farcical cue – proudly presented herself to the assistant manager of an underground sex club. “Tara Rafferty, solicitor,” she asserted, now the vengeful protector of a celebrity sex addict’s privacy rights. There, among the leather, whips and harnesses, it seemed the right time to stop being submissive.

Whether Tara can reconcile the weird comedy and supposed drama of this show, or develop a character to rival her burgeoning practice, depends first on choosing to represent herself.